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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 82st Session: Opening Address by Mr. Simon Walker, Chief, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section, Human Rights Treaties Division

11 February 2012

Distinguished Chairperson,
Distinguished members,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to welcome you to the eighty-second session of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. As this is the Committee’s first session in 2013, I would like to wish you all a happy, enriching and rewarding new year – hopefully one that will be marked by societies embracing diversity and advancements in eliminating all forms of racial discrimination around the globe.

This session commences against the backdrop of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks, born on 4 February 1913, who, through the simple act of refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white person as required by the law at the time, became a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America and inspired anti-racism movements around the world.

On this occasion, the High Commissioner issued a statement noting the mechanisms established to combat racism, while highlighting the persistent problem of racism and racial discrimination and the need to nurture the spirit of tolerance, multiculturalism and the richness of diversity. I will briefly outline other interventions by the High Commissioner and other human rights mechanisms which are relevant to your work later on, but let me now briefly turn to developments concerning the General Assembly’s intergovernmental process on the strengthening of the treaty body system.

During the General Assembly session in December last year, the co-facilitators of the intergovernmental process, the Ambassadors of Indonesia and Iceland, were re-appointed. They have expressed their intention to finish the process by May following a series of informal consultations with all stakeholders over the coming months.

We are now entering a key phase of the treaty body strengthening process. As such, the Office has been requested by various States to provide responses to questions regarding the Comprehensive Reporting Calendar, including on possible variables that would affect the cost of this proposal. In addition, the co-facilitators have requested OHCHR and conference services to review the cost of the second option proposed in the High Commissioner’s report (and before that by the Secretary General in his 2011 report to the General Assembly). The second option consists of addressing the current backlogs of reports and individual communications every two years with a view to adjusting financing for treaty bodies accordingly. We will keep you updated of developments.

We believe that this is a crucial moment for the treaty bodies. The increased number of treaty bodies, unmatched by appropriate resources, has placed significant strains on the system. We hope that the General Assembly will seize the moment to address this situation.

The Committee’s Vice-Chairperson, Mr. Cali Tzay, participated in the interactive dialogue with the Third Committee during the 67th session of the General Assembly, and I am sure that he will brief you on this in further detail. However, I would just like to highlight that through its latest resolution, the General Assembly expressed its appreciation for the efforts made by the Committee to improve the efficiency of its working methods, including with a view to further harmonizing the working methods of the treaty bodies. It also encouraged the Committee to continue its activities in this regard. It welcomed the efforts made by the Committee to erase the backlog of reports pending consideration, and noted the role that improvements in efficient working methods and temporary additional meeting time have played.

As additional meeting time has not been extended beyond 2012, the Committee will now have to return to three-week sessions. This may lead to the increase of backlogs once again, particularly given the fact that there are already 23 State party reports awaiting consideration. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the Committee will remain at the forefront of innovative and efficient working methods at no cost, which is particularly relevant in times of budgetary constraints.

On the topic of budget constraints, we are unfortunately anticipating system-wide budget cuts of 100 million USD in the regular budget of the UN Secretariat, of which 4.5 million USD will be taken from OHCHR’s regular budget. Despite the fact that 70 per cent of these cuts must be in staff costs, I am pleased to inform you that the CERD Secretariat will not be affected by these measures at this point in time. However, while the Office continues to do its utmost to provide the best possible servicing to the treaty bodies, it seems inevitable that we all make some sacrifices.

One good practice that is already being applied by other treaty bodies is the replacement of hard copy documents by electronic files for Committee members. I am sure that you would not disagree that applying a similar practice is both environmentally and financially required. Hard copies would continue to be provided, not by default to the entire Committee, but upon the request of individual members. As some international organizations, including some departments of the United Nations, have already begun to hold paperless meetings, I believe that this move is inevitable.

Distinguished members of the Committee,

With regard to other developments since your last session, the final OHCHR expert workshop on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred was held in Rabat in October 2012, following the four regional workshops held throughout the year. I am sure that Mr. Ewomsan, who attended the meeting, will brief you on the rich discussions of the meeting. The Rabat Plan of Action, which was adopted during the Rabat meeting and will be launched next week on 21 February, is also included in your files.

A welcome development that has been applauded by the High Commissioner recently is the “National March for the Eradication of Manual Scavenging”, which took place over 63 days in 200 districts of 18 states across India to eradicate the practice known as “manual scavenging”, which are forced upon Dalit women due to the stigma attached to their caste. The High Commissioner also welcomed a new bill submitted to the Indian Parliament in September 2012, which provides a comprehensive definition and prohibition of manual scavenging.

In relation to the work of Special Procedures mandate holders, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance recently concluded missions to Bolivia in September last year and to Spain in January this year, highlighting his concerns regarding discrimination against indigenous and peasant communities and Afro-Bolivians in Bolivia, and against migrants, asylum-seekers and Roma in Spain. The Working Group on African Descent has also undertaken an official visit to Panama in January this year, expressing its concern at contemporary forms of racial, structural and institutional discrimination against Afrodescendant communities which are deeply rooted in the history of Panama, and recommending that the Government make racial discrimination a legal offence and make a declaration under article 14 of the Convention.

In response to events that have unfolded in the last six months, on 31 October 2012, the Independent Expert on Minority Issues issued a joint press release expressing deep concern over the continuing violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine State in Myanmar. On 8 January 2013, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples urged the Government of Canada and Aboriginal leaders to engage in meaningful dialogue in light of weeks of protests carried out by aboriginal leaders and activists and a month-long hunger strike by the Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation due to recent federal legislation and executive decisions affecting the rights of Aboriginal peoples. Most recently, on 25 January 2013, the Independent Expert on Minority Issues issued a joint press release appealing to the Government of Iran to halt the execution of five Ahwazi activists.

Distinguished members of the Committee,

Turning now to your agenda, you will be meeting with the Board of Trustees for the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Population for the first time, as well as with Morten Kjærum, Director of the Fundamental Rights Agency, members of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, and Mr. Adama Dieng, who has been appointed in July 2012 by the UN Secretary-General as his Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide. The Chairperson, Mr. Avtonomov, has also been invited to attend a seminar on 15 February on the enhancement of international cooperation in human rights, which will be organized by OHCHR pursuant to a Human Rights Council resolution.

During this session, the Committee will examine the implementation of the Convention in seven States parties, in addition to several country situations under the early warning and urgent action procedure, a number of countries under the follow-up procedure, and individual communications under article 14 of the Convention. Let me assure you OHCHR’s full support for your work.

Finally, I would like to thank you on behalf of the Division for taking part in the survey we sent last December related to your satisfaction of the Secretariat’s support. 45 out of 172 experts completed the survey which, given the busy end-of-year period, was a quite a good response rate. We were happy that 83.7 percent of respondents rated Secretariat support either satisfactory or very satisfactory. We will send a similar survey at the end of this year and we hope that as many of you as possible will provide us with this important feedback.

I extend my best wishes to all of you for a successful session.

Thank you.